Much has been said – and written – about Hermès’ illustrious equestrian heritage. The French maison, which was founded in 1837 and now sits at the pinnacle of the luxury world, is keen to celebrate its roots as a harness and saddle maker.
What’s less known, however, is that after almost two centuries, the company’s equestrian department is still alive and well. It takes pride of place in Hermès’ Parisian home at 24 Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré where, on the sixth floor, above the legendary boutique, artisans stitch calfskin and cowhide into beautiful saddles used by horse riders the world over.
Although dwarfed in size and output by more glamorous and profitable categories – or métiers, as Hermès likes to call them – such as silk and leather goods, the equestrian department represents the core of Hermès, its beating heart, the place where its reputation as a custodian of unparalleled savoir-faire began.
As Marion Bardet, the department’s managing director, explains, “Nowadays when you think of Hermès you think more of bags than saddles, but for more than 100 years it was 100 percent a saddle manufacturer. It’s very important in the culture of the company, and when Hermès diversified into other products, the influence of the equestrian department was everywhere.
“The Hermès harnesses were revolutionary in the 19th century, because back in those days harnesses were ornamental and decorated but the Hermès ones were totally different. They were created in the belief that the most beautiful element is the horse – and instead of taking away from the horse, Hermès harnesses were light and simple, and the main goal was to be functional.”
Bardet speaks as leading horsemen and horsewomen compete at one of the equestrian world’s most prestigious competitions, the Saut Hermès, which the company sponsors and organises every year at the Grand Palais in Paris.
The event is a grand stage on which Hermès pays homage to its heritage, while also aiming to attract younger enthusiasts to an Olympic discipline that remains a niche sport. The name of Hermès alone gives an allure to the competition, which is also the best place to admire the beautiful creations of its equestrian department. For it’s not only saddles that make up the house’s equestrian range. From fitted waterproof jackets to well-cut jodhpurs and sleek riding boots, Hermès outfits its partner riders from head to toe, making them the most dapper bunch on the course.
“We started redoing the collection five years ago and the starting point was to think that horse riding always used to be a very elegant sport, and for a long time it stayed elegant but wasn’t functional – and when it became functional it totally lost its elegance,” explains Bardet.
“The jacket, for instance, when it became stretchable it lost its elegance and many other products too, so we said, ‘We’re Hermès and our goal is to offer garments that are both elegant and technical.’ We decided to develop the products to reach that goal of elegance and functionality, and it was a collaboration between our partner riders and the artistic direction of Hermès. We got the technical input from our riders and then the elegance, quality and style from our artistic team.”
At the Saut Hermès in March, Hermès partner riders were hands-down the most stylish on the course, happy to show off not only their riding skills but also their attire in front of admirers from France and beyond. Hermès works closely with them for the creation of custom-made saddles, which are vital to their performance, and the design of their gear, listening to their feedback and involving them in the process.
“When I started to work with Hermès three years ago,” explains Daniel Bluman, one of the partner riders, “the Cavale saddle was their latest model, but it didn’t fit me well so I worked with their team to develop a new model, the Allegro, which is fantastic. Before working with Hermès I used to just use saddles that fit me, but I didn’t pay much attention and some of them hurt my horse’s back. Since I started working with them, I had to learn a lot to develop the Allegro saddle. I spent time in the workshop and we measured the horses and so on.
“When you’re feeling good on a saddle it makes a huge difference, and it makes an even bigger difference when you’re not comfortable There’s no way that you can stay competitive if you’re not riding with a saddle that fits you perfectly. With the level of competition we have nowadays, even the smallest advantage you can have over every other rider will be a difference between winning and losing.”
While the Saut Hermès is ultimately a sporting competition, there’s such a civilised atmosphere and elegance to the proceedings that it almost feels like a throwback to the Grand Palais’ early days. It was built at the beginning of the 20th century to host equestrian competitions; rooftop sculptures of stallions in mid-gallop are a sign of its original purpose.
For both the house that gives it its name and the venue in which it takes place, the Saut Hermès is thus a celebration of their origins and a reminder that while horse-drawn carriages may no longer roam the streets of Paris, Hermès is, and has always been, part of the daily fabric of the city where it was born, whether through the harnesses that adorned horses in the 19th century or the modern-day flaneurs clad in its beautifully made products in the 21st.
“[The company’s late chairman] Jean-Louis Dumas used to say that at Hermès the first client was the horse,” explains Bardet. “It’s historically true but the meaning behind this sentence is also that when you make something for a human being, if it doesn’t fit, he will tell you if there’s something wrong, but when you make a saddle or a bridle, if there’s a problem the horse won’t be able to tell you even if it hurts him. So there’s this conviction that you have to pay attention to every single detail, because you won’t have any feedback. I love this story because it explains how attention to detail is so important for Hermès.”
It’s a telling anecdote about a house that has always prized beauty and quality over glamour and speed, and an important lesson in an age when some of its fellow luxury brands feel the need to follow their fast-fashion rivals, failing to realise that the secret to their success often lies in staying true to their heritage and not forgetting what came before.